American trio shines in down-under ski enduro
I first heard about the 50K of Coronet Peak after receiving an intriguing email from friend and Beaver Creek PR manager, Christina Schleicher. I had been living in Queenstown, New Zealand for two months when I received the message asking me if I had any interest in helping out as support crew for three “hot chicks” from America when they came to Queenstown to compete in the endurance downhill ski race.With the rigors of a 20-hour workweek not exactly weighing me down, slightly homesick and figuring that supporting three “hot chicks” couldn’t be all that bad, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity.Over the ensuing two weeks I communicated with competitor and Aspen native Nicole Pelletier, attempted to grasp a concept of what the race was about and offered to tie up any loose ends for the team. I was also introduced via email to the other two competitors, Andi Malboeuf and Erica MacConnell. Malboeuf is a Vail resident with an extensive ski racing background, and MacConnell is a ski coach from out East with an equally impressive racing background.I soon learned that the 50K is the sister race to the 24 Hours of Aspen, and the American girls participation evolved after race organizers recruited Pelletier and Malboeuf from the field of Aspen competitors in 2001. The two women have remained teammates in the 50K for three years, adding MacConnell in 2003 after the retirement of former teammate Noel Lyons. “It is important in this three person downhill endurance race format that you pick the right team,” said Malboeuf. “We’ve been very lucky each year to find three rad women who are tough, strong and willing to rally hard in the adventure of a lifetime.”Appropriately, I was first introduced to the three woman at a dinner hosted by Johan Small-Smith (ironically, at Queenstown’s Texas-themed Lone Star restaurant). Small-Smith’s relationship with the American trio dates back three years, when his family first served as a host family to the women. It was also a year in which his son, Pieter Small-Smith, served as the team manager. Tragically, Pieter drowned roughly one month later in a diving accident in Fiji. Despite the loss, the relationship between the women and the Small-Smith family remains strong, reuniting each year for the event. Today, the trophy for the fastest women’s team in the field is named the Pieter Small-Smith trophy, and it was a major motivating factor for the Americans to have their names engraved on the trophy in honor of their relationship with Pieter.The week leading up to the night of the endurance race was a marathon in and of itself, but the girls showed up primed and ready to go. Decal stickers with a picture of their fallen friend adorned their helmets as inspiration to get them through the 15-hour race.The concept behind the race seemed simple. To the casual observer, the course looked like a lot fun. In reality, keeping track of all of the times required a team of NASA scientists – actually the fine people at Hewlett Packard. And the casual observer did not have to make over 100 laps in the span of a cold 15-hour night.Fine-tuned over the past several years, HP developed an intricate timing system specifically for this race. Installing transponder devices into the ski boots of each competitor, the devices triggered receivers at the start and finish of the course during each run. The system worked to perfection, offering race officials, competitors and fans from home the ability to follow the race in real time.Each team was required to have two competitors on course at all times. With each run averaging 51 seconds and factoring in a roughly six-minute chairlift ride; the American women skied to a four-lap on, two-lap off system. Essentially, this broke down to 30 minutes on the course with 12 minutes of rest in between.The American women encountered some trouble early on when the young Kiwi girls came out setting a blazing pace, and ran into further danger when MacConnell took a brutal fall on the eighth lap. By the middle of the night, the consistent times being laid down by the Americans began to inch them closer to the Kiwis, but an hour-long course maintenance delay rejuvenated the hometown girls. They returned to the course with fresh legs and pulled away to an insurmountable lead.”I could see the fire in Nicole’s eyes,” recalls team manager Jim Ledwith. “The girls were putting down some real consistent times as the Kiwis were falling off a bit, and their competitive nature really resisted the break, even at 4 am.”In the end, the American women fell just short of putting their names on the Pieter Small-Smith trophy, coming in second behind the Kiwis, yet ahead of the Canadians and Italians. In the final seconds of the race a moral victory was achieved as they caught the last chair for a final lap with three seconds to spare. The significance of the final chair meant that they had skied the same distance as the Kiwis, and lead to a very exciting race climax for competitors and spectators alike.”I’m so proud of how our team did,” said Pelletier in retrospect. “We maintained a really consistent pace throughout the highs and lows of the race, even when the course deteriorated into a mine field of dark trenches in the middle of the night.” The women admit that three years ago, the race was simply an opportunity to travel to New Zealand, have a great time and to challenge themselves. In their third year of attendance, the event has clearly become significantly more meaningful than a 15-hour downhill race. Proceeds from the week-long series of events helped to raise NZ$202,000 for the Cure Kids, a charity devoted to aiding children with serious illnesses. Additionally, the athletes were given the opportunity to interact with the Cure Kids throughout the week. 13-year old bone cancer patient Thomas Field was teamed with the Americans women for the week.” My personal highlight was hanging out with the Cure Kids,” says MacConnell. “It was amazing to be part of such a big event that was totally geared toward these kids, and it was incredible to see how much each kid enjoyed the week.”Team manager Ledwith was most impressed by the American women’s devotion to the entire event, as opposed to simply the race itself.”They brought so much energy with them, and at the end of it all skied for 15 hours,” commented Ledwith. “They were 100 percent committed in every aspect from participating with the Cure Kids, interacting with the other competitors, skiing the race and reveling in the fun of it all the entire time.”On a personal note, as I travel through this world and live abroad during a time when it is not always easy to defend the Bush administration and America’s status as a world power, I found that helping out Nicole, Andi and Erica proved to be a wonderful experience and a helpful reminder. Behind all of the world politics, the American people are a fun-loving, energetic, tenacious, and competitive society; and a wonderful sight to behold when at their best.